Category Archives: Teacher Effectiveness

New Bellwether Analysis on Michigan Education Provides Facts for DeVos Debate

When President Donald Trump nominated Betsy DeVos to serve as his Secretary of Education, she was not well known on a national scale: her behind-the-scenes advocacy and philanthropic work has concentrated on her home state of Michigan. But DeVos’ nomination put a national spotlight on education in Michigan, and her critics and boosters alike have been making a variety of claims about Michigan that are confusing and contradictory.

Slide1To address this, Bellwether just released a fact base on education in Michigan to inform the conversation about DeVos’ work there and what it might mean for the Department of Education if she is confirmed.

Our slide deck report addresses a number of key questions: How are Michigan students performing, and what do achievement gaps look like for low-income students and students of color? Do charter schools in Michigan produce better results than district-run public schools, and if so, by how much? Why does Michigan have so many charter schools operated by for-profit companies?

Among the things we found:

  • Michigan typically ranks in the lowest third of states in terms of student proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and state assessment results show wide achievement gaps by racial/ethnic group and income level.
  • Educational authority in Michigan is highly decentralized, with multiple state governing entities and over 40 charter school authorizers.
  • About 150,000 Michigan students attend public charter schools, making up 10 percent of the student population.
  • Another 200,000 students, or 13 percent, take advantage of inter-district choice options to attend schools outside of their home district.
  • On average, students attending charter schools learn more than comparable students attending district-run schools. However, producing greater learning gains compared to schools serving similar students is a low bar because most Michigan charters are in Detroit, one of the lowest-performing large, urban school districts in the country.
  • Repeated reform efforts to improve Detroit Public Schools (DPS) have not produced academic improvements for students or solved the ongoing financial crisis in the school district. A new law reinstates local control over DPS, limits charter school expansion to nationally accredited authorizers, and creates an A-F accountability system for both charter schools and traditional public schools.

Through data analysis and a deeper dive into the context of the Michigan education landscape, we hope to inform the ongoing debate about DeVos and give new insight into education in Michigan. The state has been a laboratory for school choice and educational reform efforts, and demands a more complete context and deeper analysis than sound bytes can provide. Read the full report here and let us know what you think.

What is the Purpose of Teacher Evaluation Today? A Conversation Between Bellwether and The Fordham Institute

BW picTeacher evaluation was one of President Obama’s signature policies, and a controversial element of education reform during his tenure. With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which does not require states and districts to implement performance-based teacher evaluations like No Child Left Behind waivers did, teacher evaluation policy has largely fallen out of the public narrative. But that does not mean states or districts know how they are going to proceed with teacher evaluation policy — in fact, its future remains unclear in this new era of lessened federal oversight.

In December 2016, Bellwether Education Partners and The Thomas B. Fordham Institute independently released two reports centered on teacher evaluation and its consequences. Bellwether’s report summarizes the teacher evaluation policy landscape and points out potential risks for teacher evaluation in the wake of the passage of ESSA. The Fordham Institute’s report studies 25 districts to determine if those districts can terminate veteran teachers once evaluation systems have deemed them ineffective.

fordham picBoth reports offer a glimpse into ongoing challenges and opportunities with teacher evaluation reform, but they have very different analyses. To understand our different approaches and the places where we might overlap on teacher evaluation policy, Bellwether and Fordham hosted an email conversation between the report authors. Below is a transcript of the exchange between Bellwether’s Kaitlin Pennington and Sara Mead and Fordham’s Victoria McDougald and David Griffith.

Fordham’s report emphasized dismissing ineffective veteran teachers and Bellwether’s report highlighted how the field has switched the focus of teacher evaluation to professional development. Are these aims incompatible? Understanding the core purpose of teacher evaluation systems is especially important as states and districts consider making changes in the ESSA era. Each exchange below ends with a question for the other organization’s authors to respond to. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

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Bellwether’s Kaitlin Pennington and Sara Mead: When we wrote our report, we grappled with what policymakers, teachers, and the public see as teacher evaluation’s purpose or “theory of action.” From the onset of reforms, there was inconsistent messaging. Some said teacher evaluation would be used primarily to inform employment decisions. Others said the systems would inform teachers’ professional development. Over time, many said the systems would do both. The inconsistent messaging about the purpose of teacher evaluation enabled opponents to define the systems as primarily punitive measures targeting teachers.

This led advocates to lose hold of the teacher evaluation narrative. Although very few teachers are rated ineffective and – as you write about in your report – even fewer actually lose their jobs because of poor evaluation ratings, many teachers currently view performance-based teacher evaluation systems as mechanisms to harm them.

But focusing narrowly on ineffective teachers may be the wrong emphasis. We believe that teacher evaluation is important because these systems can be used to define common expectations for effective teaching practice, facilitate data-driven conversations about instruction, and reward effective teaching in order to retain the most-skilled teachers. In the past several years, many states have used the systems to do this – in fact the most differentiation of teacher practice is happening at the high end of the spectrum between “effective” and “highly effective” teachers.

So while it is troubling that the systems have not exited poor performing teachers from the profession like many early teacher evaluation advocates hoped they would, the reformed systems have made progress over the binary systems they replaced. Yet the focus on firing teachers continues to dominate the public narrative.

Now because the Every Student Succeeds Act allows for more changes to teacher evaluation, many states are trying to rid their systems from connection to the “firing bad teachers” narrative. They are doing so by making it even harder to objectively determine ineffective teaching (and exit teachers because of it) by reducing or eliminating the main quantitative data point in many teacher evaluation systems – student achievement and growth data.  The loss of this objective data to balance subjective measures like classroom observations and student and parent surveys negatively impacts the reliability of the systems. Moreover it reinforces a troubling age-old message, that great teaching is determined by teacher input and is divorced from student output. This has implications for the future of the teaching profession and the human capital talent interested in joining a profession that is evaluated on these metrics.

When you wrote your report, did you consider teacher evaluation’s theory of action? Do you think performance-based teacher evaluations will survive in the ESSA era if the narrative around them continues to focus on firing ineffective teachers?

Fordham’s Victoria McDougald: While teacher evaluation and dismissal are obviously closely intertwined, our report – Undue Process: Why Bad Teachers in Twenty-Five Diverse Districts Rarely Get Fired – shines light on the latter, equally important yet far less-studied issue. In it, we ask: after nearly a decade of teacher evaluation reform, is it any easier to exit an ineffective veteran teacher from the classroom? Dismissal data are notoriously difficult to come by, but as recently as 2013, just 0.2 percent of tenured teachers in a typical state were dismissed for poor performance.

After combing through collective bargaining agreements, employee handbooks, and state laws, our study yielded bleak findings. Overall, we found that dismissing underperforming teachers remains far too hard (in all twenty-five diverse districts included in our study, significant barriers remain in place to doing so).

Should the conversation around teacher evaluation focus exclusively on firing ineffective teachers? Certainly not. Continue reading

As Homeschooling Continues to Grow, Here Are 4 Things You Should Know

With ESSA largely pushing accountability back to the states, the continued growth of the charter sector, increasing backlash against standardized testing, and the recent announcement that school voucher advocate Betsy DeVos is President-Elect Trump’s choice for Secretary of Education, it is clear that education policy is trending towards local control and school choice. One overlooked aspect of this shift is the growth of homeschooling.

Earlier this month, the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released a report analyzing homeschooling trends in the United States from 1999 to 2012. The practice has become much more popular over the past decade, as the homeschooling rate doubled from 1.7 percent in 1999 to 3.4 percent in 2012. That means there are now roughly 1.8 million students being schooled at home. By comparison, charter schools — which receive much of the education sector’s attention — enroll just under three million students.

So, as the homeschooling sector continues to grow, here are four things you should know: Continue reading

Go Forth and Improve, Teacher Preparation Programs. But Don’t Ask How.

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Image by Kevin Dooley via Flickr

A few weeks ago, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote an open letter calling out education schools. In it, he made several blunt remarks about the quality of teacher preparation programs, including that current teacher training “lacks rigor, is out of step with the times, and […] leaves teachers unprepared and their future students at risk.”

What the former Secretary’s letter didn’t include, however, were specifics on how preparation programs should improve. He talked a lot about grades, and about holding teachers to high standards, but that’s it.

At this point, you may be thinking: “You can’t expect him to get into the nitty gritty! The letter was more an op-ed than a policy brief.”

Sure. But then last week, the Department of Education released the final version of its long-awaited teacher preparation regulations. The regulations are an effort to hold teacher preparation programs accountable for the performance of the teachers they train after those teachers enter the classroom. Using teacher performance data, the regulations require states to create a system that rates programs as effective, at-risk, or low-performing.

Like the open letter, these regulations are devoid of specifics for how programs should improve. They say that states need to provide technical assistance for low-performing programs, for example, but don’t hint at what that support should look like. When the regulations were out for public comment, which were due in February 2015, several commenters suggested that the regulations should include specific prescriptions for what states need to do to support programs — but the Department declined, saying instead that states have “the discretion to implement technical assistance in a variety of ways.”

Why do both of these documents — representing the past and future of the highest education office — say practically nothing about how preparation programs can get better?

The answer is depressing: As a field, we don’t know how to build a better teacher preparation program.

That’s what Melissa Steel King and I found in our latest paper, A New Agenda: Research to Build a Better Teacher Preparation Program. There’s half a century of research on what makes a good teacher, but that research provides only the barest outlines of what an effective preparation program should look like. So much of teacher prep research asks “Does it work?” when really we need to be asking, “How well does it work, for whom, and under what circumstances?” Continue reading

Teacher Shortage? That Depends on Your Definitions of “Supply” and “Demand”

Teachers wanted signI published a blog post late last month questioning the numbers in a recent paper on teacher shortages from the Learning Policy Institute (LPI). After speaking with Linda Darling-Hammond, one of the report’s authors, and reading their written rebuttal, I have a clearer sense of what they did and why their numbers seemed off to me.

From what I can tell, our disagreement centers on their definition of the word “supply.” Their report says this:

In this report, we use a theoretical framework of supply and demand that defines a teacher shortage as an inadequate quantity of qualified individuals willing to offer their services under prevailing wages and conditions.

The last part is key. What they mean by “individuals willing to offer their services under prevailing wages” essentially means “people who will be hired as teachers.” They have no data on job applicants or anyone’s desire or willingness to teach. They do attempt to include people who delay entry into the teaching profession, but their assumptions lead them to exclude almost all of the people who train to become teachers who never land a teaching job.

This is a questionable definition, and it leads to some weird conclusions. Continue reading